FEMA denied most Oregonians’ requests for wildfire disaster aid

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Lower income applicants were about four times more likely to be denied than those with higher incomes

structures burned Almeda Drive Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
Devastation from the Almeda Drive Fire near Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.

Jefferson Public Radio has an article by April Ehrlich who reported that after the disastrous wildfires in Oregon in 2020 the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied about 57 percent of the 27,000 applications for federal assistance.

As an example, a woman who had lived in her home since 2012 was denied help because, as the letter from FEMA said, “You are not eligible for housing assistance because you did not prove you lived in the damaged home at the time of the disaster.” The homeowner, Maria Meunier, is one of the 14,000 Oregonians whose applications were not approved, but she is one of only 290 people who appealed the denials. Only 40 of the appeals were approved, but Ms. Meunier’s was not one of them.

Below is an excerpt from the article at Jefferson Public Radio:

Left out
Oregon’s high rates of denial are on par with previous natural disasters. FEMA denied about 60% of Puerto Rican disaster assistance applicants after Hurricane Maria. A study by Texas Hausers, a housing nonprofit, found that FEMA denied a quarter of disaster applicants after Hurricane Harvey hit there.

Many of the people who have been denied assistance are low-income. Among Hurricane Harvey applicants, people whose annual incomes were below $15,000 had a 46% denial rate. People with annual incomes exceeding $70,000 had a 10% denial rate.

JPR has a pending data request with FEMA to obtain income and demographic information about Oregon applicants who were impacted by wildfires in 2020.

Following Oregon’s wildfires, FEMA issued press releases encouraging people to appeal. They said the appeals process could be as simple as correcting a typo or providing a missing document.

Disaster victim advocates and legal aid attorneys say appealing FEMA’s denials is anything but simple; and that by denying so many people the first time, the agency is using a complex bureaucratic process to weed out people who likely need the most help.

“People who’ve been affected by a disaster are dealing with trauma,” said attorney Tracy Figueroa with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “They’re trying to pull the documents together, and just hearing “no” from one entity or another can shut things down. They don’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy. They’re just done.”

Figueroa and other legal aid attorneys say applicants almost always need an attorney to help them find and deliver documents, provide context for their living situations, and continually follow up with FEMA representatives.

People with limited resources are less likely to have access to a lawyer. Disaster-prone states like Texas, where Figueroa has worked through 18 federal disasters, have teams of legal aid attorneys that help low-income disaster victims. But in states like Oregon, which rarely sees a disaster as destructive as the Almeda Fire, there are few private or nonprofit attorneys who are experienced in FEMA disaster assistance.

FEMA’s denial letters aren’t always clear about how applicants can amend their applications. For example, several Oregon applicants told JPR that they were denied assistance because they have homeowner’s insurance; a common misunderstanding, since FEMA often lists homeowners insurance as a reason for denial. Rather, FEMA can help people with homeowners insurance, but those applicants need to follow a few other steps first. They need to see what their insurance will cover and provide that documentation to FEMA, then they need to apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration, even if they don’t intend to take out a loan. At that point, they could go back to FEMA with an appeal.

Challenges with mobile homes
Jackson County officials say two-thirds of the homes destroyed by the Almeda Fire were manufactured homes. Like Meunier, mobile homeowners face a number of challenges in applying for disaster assistance. They need to provide months-long proof that they paid space rent, a copy of their lease agreement and a title to their home, which isn’t always available because of the generally informal process of buying a mobile home.

“For people who are living in mobile homes, they may not have those title documents,” said Sarah Saadian of the Low Income Housing Coalition. “Even if your state may require you to register it, it just doesn’t happen like that. Sometimes the park owner might have it. Sometimes it’s never delivered when the home is delivered.”

Saadian and the Low Income Housing Coalition are encouraging FEMA and Congress to enact legislation that allows mobile homeowners to self-certify homeownership in lieu of title documents, a process that had been allowed after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. FEMA only allows self-attestation in U.S. territories, not in the states.

Mobile home parks have historically been located in areas that are susceptible to natural disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes.

“They’re in areas where wildfires occur and where flooding can occur because they’re tucked away,” said attorney Ilene Jacobs with the California Rural Legal Assistance. “Some of them are quite substandard and are in areas adjacent to a highway.”

The Almeda Fire burned through the Bear Creek Greenway, a riparian area and bike path running along the Interstate 5 freeway. Several manufactured home parks abutted the greenway and freeway before the fire raged through those properties.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

10 thoughts on “FEMA denied most Oregonians’ requests for wildfire disaster aid”

  1. Mobile/remanufactured homes are often of light construction and not so good quality. They can be squeezed into close quarters with others and then surrounded by burnable materials. Years ago when I took structural fire training the prevailing thought was that once ignited they burned quickly and completely and our job was to prevent the fire from spreading to adjoining structures. I feel badly for the homeless in losing everything.

  2. FEMA does feel like a minefield of confusion for those citizens not prepared for disasters. Unless you live in a hurricane prone region, why would you have all your required paperwork ready in your “go bag” all the time? I did a few deployments as a housing inspector after hurricanes and my bag is sitting about 3 feet from here where I type.. I can say that most residents in places like St. Croix, USVI, have all their documents ready to go at any time.

    FEMA would do us all a great service if they regularly did PSAs or some other way of educating citizens of how FEMA works, what they might cover in a disaster, how to prepare, how to keep records of your related expenses, etc. It should not be a surprise to Americans after a disaster hits.

    Also, FEMA sort of has to dance with what the President gives them. Your governor has to request a declaration of disaster first before FEMA can even get involved. Restrictions on what damages might be covered may change with every different disaster. It is complicated. Write your congress person, your senator, our new president. Do it.

    Always Girl Scout, Be Prepared!

  3. Thanks for posting this. People on the edge, like young firefighters, may not know about the possibility of appealing. Agitate, agitate, agitate!

    1. Up the McKenzie River canyon from Eugene, the Holiday Farm Fire wiped out several little riverside communities. I mean razed them to the ground. Try a google search for Chief Rainbow VFD and you’ll see. I know they had an IMT post-fire response up there, and I expect they did for all the major fires up and down the I-5 corridor last fall. But I’ll bet the number of people who dropped through the cracks after the fire teams left is way more than dozens and likely hundreds. Many are still stranded and homeless — they lost friggin’ EVERYTHING in those fires. It wasn’t like a few houses and the community survived. The whole village is gone. Like the Camp Fire at Paradise.

      FEMA’s been a clusterfok for many years, but it sure didn’t get any better during the Trumpyears.

      1. A mobile home is often called a trailer, like what you see in “trailer parks,” even though they can be double-wide, expensive, and beautiful. They’re often not. A manufactured home, also sometimes called a pre-fab or modular home, is the pre-built homes manufactured by Boise Cascade et al.

        Trying to search this up online, however, will just confuse you more. ?


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